At a glance.
- Other players in election influence.
- Conspiracy theories and social fissures.
- Marketing as a dual-use technology.
- Content moderation in Thailand.
It's not just Russia: there are other players in the election influence contest.
William Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has added a few governments to the list of those who appear interested in influencing US elections, CyberScoop reports. He said last week that Cuba, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia “want to be able to provide their optics for discord in the United States.” Iran, China, and ("obviously," as Evanina said) Russia remain interested in meddling with the election, but Cuban, North Korean, and Saudi efforts had been less widely remarked. It's significant that the aim he assigns these actors is "discord," which suggests that the Russian playbook of negative messaging intended to exacerbate fissures and mistrust within civil society has caught the attention of other nations, even though their propaganda styles have in the past tended toward pushing messages that support their respective "positive" national objectives.
Some of the ongoing battlespace preparation appears to be reconnaissance of infrastructure that's not directly linked to voting, but which could, if disrupted, affect the conduct of elections. While Evanina and others haven't discounted the possibility of some attempts at direct manipulation of vote counts (although as Dark Reading observed Evanina did note Russian attempts to affect the way the last Ukrainian vote was reported) the prospect of hostile influence operations seems to be taken as likelier, and more serious.
Conspiracy theories as ready-made social fissures.
Russian operators appreciate the value that conspiracy theories can have in their influence operations. It doesn't really matter how lunatic those theories are, how much they depend on decoding allegedly coded messages that even novelist Dan Brown would blush to incorporate in a plot or an associate professor of comp lit would hesitate to roll out at an MLA meeting. (Should this seems overstated, see this USAToday story about the hermeneutical skills on display in some recent QAnon productions.) Thus, Reuters observes, Russian government actors including not only the Internet Research Agency's troll farmers but the slicker and entirely more legitimate-appearing RT and Sputnik are amplifying QAnon messages. These latter two outlets have gotten good at it: their tone, diction, and idiomatic control as very good indeed, without a whiff of ShadowBrokerese or DCLeaks diction.
The treatment is not confined to QAnon themes alone, although both RT and Sputnik have increased their coverage of QAnon stories. See this coverage in Sputnik for an example of the breezy and light-handed way the outlet covers the story of NCSC Director Evanina's remarks about influence operations.
Contracting the influence out: marketing as a dual-use commodity.
The Times of Israel says that Israel’s Ministry of Defense is distancing itself from Psy-Group, which the US Senate cited in its recent report on foreign attempts to influence the 2016 US election. The report indicated that Psy-Group had worked for Russian operators; Israel’s Ministry of Defense disclaims any involvement, as well it might. In principle these connections involve dual-use products and services: whatever Psy-Group may have been up to, at one level of abstraction it's just marketing. But in this case it's allegedly marketing in Russian battledress. Israeli government supervision of cyber exports seems likely to remain a matter of domestic debate for the foreseeable future.
Agent of influence, or just agent? Or both?
A former US Army officer, Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins, has been charged with conspiracy to gather or deliver defense information to aid a foreign government. The indictment alleges that Mr. Debbins worked for Russia’s GRU between 1997 and 2011. After leaving the Army in 2011 Mr. Debbins worked for several Government contractors, the Washington Post reports, but the indictment confines itself to his period of military service.
The very detailed indictment suggests that a lot of sources contributed to the investigation, and the Justice Department’s press release makes a point of thanking “the United Kingdom's Metropolitan Police and MI5.”
Mr. Debbins, who is of course entitled to the presumption of innocence, allegedly first contacted Russian intelligence services while he was still an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, two years before he was commissioned. He’s also alleged to have travelled to Russia several times, to have been in and out of hot water for security issues while on active duty with the US Army, and to have married a Russian citizen whose father was a Russian officer.
Unless there’s been some long-running attention to and exploitation of Mr. Debbins by US counterintelligence and intelligence organizations, one wonders what one would have to do to attract security managers’ attention. In his post-Army civilian career he's also been on the think tank circuit, offering presentations on Russian policy and Russian hybrid operations. Those presentations had, a number of people have observed (let this Twitter thread stand for several others) a tone that was markedly pro-Russian, and thought at the time to be such. Those presentations would not have figured in the indictment Mr. Debbins faces, but delivering information as an agent is not usually coupled with delivering persuasion as an agent of influence.
Screening out lèse-majesté.
Lèse-majesté hasn't vanished from the world. The Washington Post reports that Thailand is cracking down on social media critical of the country’s monarchy. The Minister of Digital Economy and Society said that when it deemed a web address to contain illegal material, it would obtain a court order to block access in Thailand to that address. Enforcement would then fall on the platform that carries the illegal material. They’d have fifteen days to comply with the court order “or face legal action.”
Reuters reported on Monday that Thai authorities had directed Facebook to restrict access to the Royalist Marketplace, a group critical of Thailand's monarchy. Facebook complied, and the message “Access to this group has been restricted within Thailand pursuant to a legal request from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.” But CNN reports that the social network is preparing a legal challenge to the ban. "Requests like this are severe, contravene international human rights law, and have a chilling effect on people's ability to express themselves," Facebook told CNN Business. "We work to protect and defend the rights of all internet users and are preparing to legally challenge this request." The Royalist Marketplace has or had approximately one million members.
Thailand is far from alone in going down this particular path, and its approach has been, by global standards, relatively gentle. Foreign Policy, for example, sees a trend toward more government control of what can be said. Repressive control of expression in China is well-known, but Foreign Policy's in some ways more disturbing story is of the arrest in India of Prashant Bhushan for tweets deemed a “calculated attack on the very foundation of the institution of the judiciary.” The New York Times has an account of the critic's legal troubles. India, one recalls uneasily, is a credible democracy, so this is a man-bites-dog scoop as opposed to the dog-bites-man filler it would be in, say, Chelyabinsk, Shenzhen, Cienfuegos, Qom, or Sinuiju. Or so one would hope.